This article is by Rick Lai.
Who was the mysterious French Leach residing in H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts? Which of Lovecraft’s works did he appear in?
This mystery perplexed me for over four decades. Lasting ten issues, the Arkham Collector was a fanzine issued during 1967-1971 by Arkham House, the publishing firm founded by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Issue #7 (Summer 1970) featured a map of Arkham by noted artist Gahan Wilson:
It received wider circulation when it was reprinted in J. B. Post’s anthology of fictional maps, The Atlas of Fantasy (Ballantine Books, 1979).
On the map, you’ll find the houses of several Lovecraft characters such as Albert N. Wilmarth (“The Whisperer in Darkness”), N. W. Peaslee (“The Shadow out of Time”), and Daniel Upton (“The Thing on the Doorstep”). The title structure from “The Dreams of the Witch House” prominently appears. You’ll even find the house of August Derleth’s Professor Laban Shrewsbury (The Trail of Cthulhu) though the character is incorrectly identified as Dr. Nathan Shrewsbury. There is also the house belonging to French Leach on Sentinel Street just below the Miskatonic River in the eastern end of town. Who is French Leach?
Wilson had no idea who French Leach was. The same issue of The Arkham Collector contained commentary asserting that Wilson’s map was “based on Lovecraft’s sketch originally published in Marginalia,” a Lovecraft collection published in 1944 by Arkham House. The sketch was drawn by Lovecraft in 1934. The Arkham Collector also had the following quote from Gahan Wilson:
“I would appreciate any information which would aid in increasing the authenticity and detail work of this map of Arkham. All contributions from author and/or scholars involved with the Cthulhu Mythos and its history in the region of Arkham would be gracefully received. Two specific questions raised by Lovecraft’s original map are:
“Who is Repas Garrison?
“Who (or what) is French Leach?
“My sincerest thank in advance to anyone kind enough to help.”
The name Repas Garrison does not appear on either Lovecraft’s sketch or Wilson’s map. There is a character called Uriah Garrison in “The Shadow in the Attic,” first published in August Derleth’s 1964 Arkham House anthology, Over the Edge. Presented as a “posthumous collaboration” by Derleth and Lovecraft, “The Shadow in the Attic” is totally Derleth’s work. The story contained the first usage in fiction of two locales from Lovecraft’s 1934 sketch, Hangman’s Brook and Hangman’s Hill.
Lovecraft’s sketch has recently become easily available through its inclusion in Leslie Klinger’s The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014). The sketch is reproduced on page 39 of the hardcover edition. Since Lovecraft’s handwriting is difficult to read, a 2006 adaptation of the map by Joseph Morales was printed below the sketch. Mr. Morales has also posted both the original sketch and his adaptation on the web.
The structure depicted on Wilson’s map as “French Leach’s house” is actually portrayed as “French Doctor’s House (Gardens)” in Lovecraft’s sketch. “French Leach” seems to have been originally intended to be “French Leech,” an archaic Colonial term for a doctor of French descent. To cite an actual usage of the phrase, Evangeline Walton’s Witch House (Arkham House, 1945) described an immigrant living in Colonial Massachusetts as “a French Huguenot and a leech.”
A comparison with Lovecraft’s original sketch demonstrates that Gahan Wilson’s map used additional sources as a basis. Lovecraft’s sketch only contained the portion of Arkham south of the Miskatonic River. Wilson’s map added the northern portion of the town which included such locales as the Dark Ravine (“Dreams in the Witch House”), the Chapman Farm House (“Herbert West Reanimator”), Arkham Sanitarium (“The Thing on the Doorstep”), Joe Sargent’s Bus Stop (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) and the Curwen Street residence of Derleth’s Shrewsbury. Lovecraft’s sketch didn’t identify the residences of Wilmarth, Peaslee and Upton in southern Arkham, but Wilson’s map featured them (the street locations are all consistent with references in Lovecraft’s works). Wilson must have consulted unpublished notes by either Lovecraft or someone else. These supplementary notes altered “French Doctor” to “French Leach.” Whoever the author of this alteration was, he was unavailable to answer questions in 1970. Since Derleth died a year later (1971), it is doubtful that he wrote the material containing the “French Leach” alteration. Possibly Robert H. Barlow (1918-51), Lovecraft’s literary executor, made some notes about the 1934 Arkham sketch, but this is pure speculation on my part.
Who was Lovecraft’s “French Doctor?” The answer can be found in August Derleth’s “Final Notes” in The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (Arkham House, 1966) by H. P. Lovecraft and Divers Hands. Among the subjects covered in this article was a frank discussion of Lovecraft’s actual contributions to the “posthumous collaborations” bearing his name and Derleth’s.
Being openly candid, Derleth admitted that the overwhelming majority of the “posthumous collaborations” was derived from very vague plot descriptions in Lovecraft’s papers. Nevertheless, there were a few exceptions such as “The Survivor,” which first appeared in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales. The story involved a French surgeon whose quest for eternal life led to his metamorphosis into a saurian monstrosity.
The basis for “The Survivor” was described in these remarks attributed to Robert H. Barlow in Derleth’s “Final Notes:”
“This syllabus, penciled on the blank portions of a newspaper cartoon, hints at plans for a last, never-written story. Lovecraft spoke of it with some fullness one afternoon in 1934, but since I expected to read it in a few months or a year, I retained only casual impressions of the shape it was to have been. Inspired by an actual 17th-century house in the Quebec style which interrupts a staid New England street, the tale dealt with a French wizard who sought to duplicate in himself the fabulous longevity of a crocodile, but who succeeded in only changing his form to a hideous extent. I remember there was to have been a scene where someone glimpsed the bent reptilian figure as it hurried across a miasmatic garden behind the strange house, to vanish in the well-mouth which its condition dictated as habitat; but I cannot establish other details.”
Derleth also reproduced Lovecraft’s notes scribbled on the political cartoon;
“Studies crocodile and gavial.
“B. 1636. Bayonne. Anci Lapurdum.
“Elder secrets hinted.
“Paris 1653. Aet. 17.
“Study’d under Richd. Wiseman, Royalist exile in France. Ante 1660.
“Had been surgeon with Fr. army in India. Pondicherry-Caromandall Coast 1674 & (1683).
“Have deteriorative evolution (towards croc.) occur in tomb.”
Making Bayonne the location of Charriére’s birth was an allusion by Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price’s horror stories which frequently used that French city as a refuge for Satanists. I tried to look up “Anci Lapurdum” on the internet, but the term didn’t crop up in any searches. Online Latin dictionaries translate “Anci” as medieval collection of verses, but can’t find “Lapurdum.” Possibly Lovecraft’s handwriting was misinterpreted, and the spelling of this Latin phase is actually different. Richard Wiseman (1622?-1676) was a real-life English surgeon who lived in exile during Cromwell’s reign. He returned to England with Charles II’s restoration.
Although Derleth didn’t mention it, this plot of a doctor transforming himself into a zoological abomination surfaced in a 1924 entry for Lovecraft’s “Commonplace Book,” published in Miscellaneous Writings (Arkham House, 1995). However, the scientist was initially slated to be an amphibian, rather than a reptilian, creature:
“Individual, by some strange process, retraces the path of evolution and becomes amphibious . . . Dr. insists that the particular amphibian from which men descends is not like any known to paleontology. To prove it, indulges in (or relates) strange experiment.”
The Arkham residence of Jean-Francois Charriére is clearly the structure identified as “French Doctor’s House (Gardens) ” in Lovecraft’s 1934 sketch. When Derleth wrote “The Survivor,” he departed from Lovecraft’s notes by having Dr. Charriére build his New England home in Providence, Rhode Island, rather than Arkham. Other than the substitution of Providence for Arkham, the surgeon’s life in the seventeenth century is essentially the same. However, Charriére’s immortality experiments don’t reach their horrific “climax” in 1708 (when the surgeon was 72 as indicated in Lovecraft’s notes), but in 1930 (when the doctor had reached the age of 294 due to his occult expertise).
The emphasis on “Gardens” in the 1934 Arkham sketch indicate that the “miasmatic garden” remembered by Barlow would have played a more significant role in the story if Lovecraft have written it. Derleth’s “The Survivor” merely used the garden behind the surgeon’s house as the location of the well where the reptilian hybrid hid. While the identity of Lovecraft’s “French Doctor’ has been established, the true nature of his forbidden gardens remains unknown.
Intriguingly, Charriére was a fictional contemporary of Evangeline Walton’s “leech,” Joseph de Quincy (1618-1690) from Witch House. De Quincy was the leader of a witchcraft coven in a French town “near the Pyrenees.” This community sounds suspiciously like Bayonne, Charriére’s birthplace. In 1652, pursuit by the French authorities forced de Quincy to flee to Massachusetts. One year later, Charriére (17 years old) left Bayonne for Paris.
The similarities between the two characters are pure coincidence. Walton first corresponded with Derleth in 1944 after Witch House was completed. This was a decade before the publication of “The Survivor.” It is impossible for Walton to have seen Lovecraft’s notes on Charriére prior to writing her novel. Excerpts from the Walton-Derleth correspondence can be read in the 2013 Centipede Press edition of Witch House. However, the possibility exists that the parallels between de Quincy and Charriére may have inspired some unknown individual to transform Lovecraft’s “French Doctor” into “French Leech,” which was then mistakenly interpreted as “French Leach.”
Article by Rick Lai.